It is said that when an elephant feels in its bones that its time has come to slip across the eternal and meet its maker, it removes itself to a particular place that it knows only by instinct, far from the main territory of its herd. And there, alone, it dies. Except it doesn’t die alone, but rather surrounded by the skeletons and corpses and ghosts of elephants past. For the place to which each elephant is inexorably drawn is the same place, resulting in a proliferation of remains clustered in one area, a godly acre of past behemoths: an elephant’s graveyard.
What draws them there is unknown. Cold practicality suggests it is the availability of easy to chew food. Romance suggests noble self-sacrifice to avoid predators, but the macabre, as ever, offers the most appealing solution: that, in the final days of their life, they detect the stench of Death itself, and so willingly plod to their resting place, surrounded by a cortege of elephantine ghosts.
The same might be said for ideas in England. For ‘ideas’, read: those concepts around which its elite construct the scaffolding of their worldview. Whenever a cause or theory begins to collapse under the weight of its own hypocrisy, or succumbs to its inherent fallacies, or simply ceases to be useful to those whose existence is dependent upon its acceptance, it begins a slow plod to a swampy plot in the middle of England. There, surrounded by the great rotting husks of ideas past, and egged on by the ghosts of those who held them, it slowly dies. And yet, like the players in the grisly elephantine carnival imagined by storytellers of old, in death there is given a new life, luring other ideas, their starry-eyed proponents, and their naïve young would-be devotees to the same fate.
The graveyard of causes, then, is much more dangerous than the graveyard of elephants. For its inhabitants arrive there not in acts of self-denial aimed at the preservation of the young and healthy. But, conversely, so that they might entice that exact demographic to join them in their dance of death. Ideas, causes, dreams go to die in Oxford.
Dreams die in Oxford? Surely not. That city where even the stone-clad spires are capable of dreaming, that famed seat of learning – at once both playground of gilded youth and engine room of social change, that beating brain of England – how can this place, rich with scenes of abundant and new life, be likened to a graveyard? Let us follow the last dread trudge of the elephants and see.
‘Go thou to Oxford – at once the Paradise, the city, the grave and the wilderness’
Oxford has been a sepulchral city from the very start: the bogs that doubtless still lurk underneath the polite cobbles of the High, Broad and Turl ooze with the peat of centuries of lost causes. Put another way, the harsh reality of being a city of dreams is that, at some point, it must also become a city of crushing, disappointing reality. Oxford may well be where ideas, careers and hopes are born but invariably it is also where they die, years before they come to their longed-for fruition.
Even its legendary foundation is a tale of frustrated urges and self-propagation. The abbey which eventually became Christ Church (that most ornate of monuments to failed ambition) was the focal point for the development of both town and university. It was founded by Frideswide, the daughter of a local petty king who was greatly desired by Aelfgar, a prince of Leicester. This Romeo of the East Midlands cared not that Frideswide had made a vow to live her life dedicated to God, and such was his lust, he rode to the ford for Oxen where his would-be bride had based herself in order to seize her. Frideswide had heard of his coming and fled – concealing herself in the mud of a pigsty south of the city. Infuriated, Aelfgar made his way to her hiding place, determined to ravish her, only to be struck blind before his molestation could begin. Frideswide returned to the ford and set up an abbey in honour of her miraculous escape. A tale of entitlement and of rolling around in the mud with swine: it is, in many ways, the perfect foundation myth for the city.
Of course, Aelfgar’s lustful ambition wasn’t the last dream to make the elephantine pilgrimage to Oxford in order to die. In the winter of 1002, the fantasy of a sovereign Saxon England perished somewhere in the leafy gardens on the east side of St. Giles, amidst the screams of the Danes herded into a church on that site and burned alive on the feast of St Brice, provoking the swift conquest of Sweyn and his son Canute. The last smoky breath of Catholic England was taken on Broad Street in the autumn of 1555 as Ridley and Latimer lit that flame which they trusted would never go out. Although it is telling that Oxford embraced (and in some cases, still embraces) the zombie cause of Jacobitism with gusto. The death throes of absolutism in these islands found their natural deathbeds in Oxford, a city that held out for King Charles even after he lost his head, with St John’s vainly locking the college gate in a final gesture of defiance, only for it to be battered down by the cannon of the Puritan hordes. The chiselled jaws and angled boaters of a generation of rowers and rugby players who perished at the Somme and Mons still stare out from corners of college corridors across the city, testament to that pan-European suicide that was greeted joyfully in the continent’s premier city of the dead. It could be argued that the fate of Cameron, the most tragicomic of our late Prime Ministers, was sealed not by those Leave-filled ballot boxes in Darlington and Sunderland, but when he first put his arm through the blue-and-mustard sleeve of a Bullingdon tailcoat. Or, for those who prefer a Hellenic circularity to their myths, when he first took out another part of his anatomy and rolled around in the mud with a swine. All these ideas, all these people, were lured, and still are lured, by the idea that Oxford is the place where they will be made immortal, only to find that they are there to die.
These myriad examples of human hubris – from Aelfgar to Dave – have become Oxford’s real legacy. The lure of its outward narrative as a cradle of learning, a fertile ground in which quirky ideas and quirkier personalities flourish, remains a beguiling one for the nation and the individual, but even a passing acquaintance with the place leaves one standing, instead, in the midst of the graveyard, surrounded by ghosts.
‘Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business – that’s what’
Who are these ghosts? After all, Oxford is a place that prides itself on personalities. Not for it the spectres of disembodied theories – Protestantism, calculus and genetics etc. – that meekly wander the streets of Cambridge. The ghosts of Oxford are ideas mostly embodied as men. This is, of course, not to discount the female phantoms that stalk its streets; rather it is to acknowledge that Oxford, in typical style, took rather a lot longer to realise that they were as capable of transmitting dead ideas as men were. As such, there are a good seven centuries’ more male ghouls ready to beguile across the quads. Equally, these are not the benign spirits of those many ordinary people who have dwelt there since Frideswide’s day, the cowherds or porters or cooks, who, regardless of sin or saintliness in their lives, did not have the mechanisms of privilege to ensure a phantasmal continuation of their ego. Nor are they even the souls of those few good figures who survived their ramble through the tombs intact. They may well be there, offering the odd whisper of solace but, invariably, the voices that howl loudest amid the Bath stone are those figures who embodied Oxford’s fascination with ego and with failure.
The city is awash with those who have gone there with the specific purpose of becoming known. Law or politics have long been considered the best historic routes to achieving this. It is no coincidence that a nation so determined to educate its living among its dead has developed a legal system based entirely on precedent – the lingua franca of the spectral. No matter how glossy its textbooks or replete with steel and glass its library, law is the preserve entirely of ghosts, with Denning et al. speaking not so much in sepulchral whispers as in printed ex cathedras on every single page.
The embryonic politicians – and Oxford is awash with them – have myriad ghosts they might be haunted by. However, whether they trot down to the Union, dressed in all-too-immaculate white tie to play at backbench braying, to plot strikes and public letters amid an atmosphere of fervid earnestness and unbrushed teeth, they are – left and right alike – pursued by the spirit of Thatcher accompanied, not that far behind, by that of Gladstone. Of the thousands of skeletons that occupy the political section of Oxford’s graveyard, these two wraiths, oozing the ectoplasm of utter self-belief at the necessary sacrifice of any compromise of one’s own interests, exert a far greater power than any of the rest. In other words, nobody comes to Oxford lured by the legacy of Theresa May or Ted Heath.
Another route to notoriety is, of course, the arts. Oxford has more than its fair quota of aspiring actors, writers and poets – can there be any more grievous charge levelled at a city than that it produces teenaged poets? It has an even wider quota of literary spectres. Betjeman, Waugh, and Larkin stalk the city’s streets like Fatso, Stinky, and Stretch, the odious uncles of Caspar the Friendly Ghost, ready to mock young male undergraduates of a fragile disposition into ever more ridiculous acts of self-parody, while figures like Iris Murdoch and C S Lewis lurk between the bicycles to tempt the newly arrived English student to take them and life and Oxford much too seriously.
Surely, we might ask, those who wish to devote themselves to the propagation of religion can escape this dreadful fate, serving not fame but God? Alas, no. Those few who still cling to the university’s original aim, and come to Oxford as a stopping point on the road to Jerusalem (or, more specifically, Calvary) are, if anything, more susceptible to haunting than any other, there being so many more phantoms from which to choose. However, the voice that lures loudest in this sphere is, invariably, Cardinal Newman, with his uniquely Victorian embodiment of both sanctimony and angst. He still breathes his self-doubt and self-regard down the necks of generations of pious gown-clad amblers on the High.
Embryonic academics, of course, need only look to their own tutors for skeletal and ghostly forms, though they might glimpse the shade of Benjamin Jowett – who wanted, and achieved, a ‘world run by Balliol men’ – flitting from one faculty to another, ensuring that his vision of an Oxford, forever perpetuating its own importance, survives from one generation of ghosts to another. In some ways the donnish spectres, both living and dead, are the most successful in their ghostly counsel; having been in the graveyard all their adult lives, they know better than anyone else how to navigate the landscape of tombs.
The words (simultaneously both true and false) that flow so comfortingly from the ethereal mouths of each of these spirits into the latter day student’s ear are these – ‘as we are you shall be’; that you, young vessel of the future, can be immortalised by the greatness that belongs to the dead alone. Come and join us, they say, in the elephants’ graveyard.
‘Man is an invention of recent date, and perhaps reaching its end’
This is not a one-sided critique, aimed at the tragic Betjemenistas who have always played merrily among the catacombs: indeed, Oxford’s modern ghosts are even more powerful than those of its romantic past. It is where ideologies of all kinds go for their useful idiots – knowing that the ancient branding of the graveyard as the most fertile of pastures still has its millions of devotees. An Oxford degree remains a dream for many across the globe. Cue the entrance of recent (and not so recent) graduates – from Grace Blakeley to Toby Young – deluded by the grandeur of fellow Oxonian travellers past, queuing up to pontificate from those softly furnished pulpits of the television studios.
Nor is it a plea for the university to hasten its current process of pursuing profit and technocracy. Indeed, if there’s anyone who needs a good Marley-style haunting, it’s Len Blavatnik (the chemical giant and currency speculator after whom the university named its ‘School of Government’) or Wafic Saïd (the arms exporter and Assad-enthusiast who funded its eponymous Business School). Rather, it’s to point out that the place is so possessed by the virtue-whispering poltergeists, that it is deaf to the idea that it might be part of the problem. Even those who loudly trumpet their desire to open access to Oxford do so (with the ghost of, say, Madeleine Shaw-Lefevre, first principal of Somerville, squarely behind them) without any sense that the place and its past might be, in and of themselves, the barrier.
Most contemporary Oxford graduates don’t go into the airy professions above. Instead they pursue those careers considered to be best for making easy money. Today that is consultancy and its love-children. Tomorrow it might be undertaking. Either way, these are individuals haunted by the very worst ghosts of all – the faceless thousands, decked out in college ties and exaggerated collegiate memories, for whom Oxford really was where they spent the best years of their lives; indeed, where they spent the only years when they were ever alive at all. They may well be the future of the university – those individuals who dream of applause from investors rather than critics or crowds – but they are just as affected by the grim and ghostly elephants of the past as any other Oxonian.
‘Sometimes dead is better’
The last thing the written culture of humanity needs is a piece penned as a mere foil to enable the author to announce, at some point, with post A-Level glee still fresh after however many years it may be, that they ‘got in’. I did spend part of my university years in Oxford but it is a fact of which I am not proud. I dislike the people it puts me into the same bracket as, and frankly, I dislike the person it turned me into as well. Getting in is one thing, getting out is quite another. Leaving the place and the person behind is a work in progress: the essence of that doleful marsh has, I fear, seeped into my marrow.
That said, I still feel compelled to return – mostly to recall an embarrassing drinking bout here or a failed romance there, but also to test my newly found resolve among the ghosts. As the urge to linger among the sandstone sepulchres begins to stir once more, it is a sure sign that is time to turn back towards the train station. Because, in Oxford, sometimes dead is better.